Cats to dance on the West Coast

Billy Gillispie paused, looked to the ground and tried to contain his emotions. For the third time this season, UK’s first-year head coach had choked up talking about his team.

Gillispie and senior guards Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford have been to the NCAA Tournament before. But this time, they all agreed that it was a different feeling when UK’s name flashed on the screen during CBS’s Selection Show last night.

The Cats (18-12, 12-4 Southeastern Conference) earned the No. 11 seed in the South region and will play No. 6 seed Marquette (24-9, 11-7 Big East) on Thursday in Anaheim, Calif. , at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time. The bid extends UK’s NCAA Tournament streak to 17 seasons dating back to 1992. UK hasn’t lost a first round game in those 17 seasons.

“It’s a great testament to guys that believe in themselves and believe in what they’re trying to do,” Gillispie said. “This team has possessed so many intangibles this year, and … that really is the reason we still have the opportunity to play.”

Bradley and Crawford have played in the Big Dance in each of their three seasons, but this year, it’s a little more special, Bradley said, because of what they had to battle through to get there.

“The previous three years, we were just always like, ‘OK, we know we’re in; where are we going to be?’ ” Bradley said. “(This year) we kind of felt like one of those teams who’s not used to winning all the time, and (we’re) just excited to make it to the Big Dance.”

Gillispie agreed.

When a reporter asked him how this tournament bid differed from the others — he coached Texas-El Paso to one NCAA Tournament bid and Texas A&M to two — the stone-faced Texan answered quickly.

“I’m really proud,” Gillispie said.

Then he paused and looked at the floor. With tears welling in his eyes, he tried to gather himself. As another question was asked, Gillispie finally began speaking again.

“I’m really proud of this team,” he added. “I’ve been proud of every single team I’ve ever had … but I’ve never seen a tougher team, physically or mentally, to be able to overcome the things that were placed in front of them that were beyond their control.”

UK began the season 7-9, and two games into its SEC schedule, it appeared that it would struggle to finish .500, much less make a run at the NCAA Tournament. At that point, Crawford said the Cats had to deal with those who began to give up on them.

But UK didn’t give up.

Despite losing sophomore guard Jodie Meeks and freshman forward Patrick Patterson to injuries, UK finished in second place in the SEC East with a 12-4 conference record. That conference record was what pushed the Cats into the NCAA tournament, Crawford said.

With the 24-hour sports news world dissecting every matchup in the tournament, controversy about the Cats seems bound to arise. Ten teams with better Ratings Percentage Index rankings — a common measuring stick used by the selection committee — than UK were left out of the tournament, including former UK player Travis Ford’s Massachusetts team, 2007 national champions Florida, runner-up Ohio State and Alabama-Birmingham, which defeated UK earlier this season.

UK has the second-lowest RPI among the at-large teams that were selected. UK’s final RPI was 57th.

But Gillispie isn’t worried about what the pundits say. All that matters is that the Cats are in the tournament.

“They earned their way in,” Gillispie said. “Against all odds, they earned their way in. I’m very, very, very proud to be their coach and have a chance to keep on playing.”

Marquette knocked UK out of the tournament in 2003, the last time the two teams met, when UK was the top overall seed. The loss ended a 26-game UK winning streak.

The history between the two schools is confined almost entirely to the NCAA Tournament. UK holds a 7-6 advantage overall, but Marquette has a 5-4 lead in NCAA Tournament games.

If the Cats defeat the Golden Eagles on Thursday, they will face the winner of No. 3 seed Stanford and No. 14 seed Cornell on Sunday. Memphis checked in as the No. 1 seed in UK’s region.